09 October 2021

‘A good Bill, but not the best … at
the moment, it’s the best we can get’

Patrick Comerford

I am quoted in the Church Times this weekend in its report on the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, held over three days last weekend:

Church of Ireland Synod: Overwhelming support for smaller synodical Houses

By Pat Ashworth

HELD via Zoom for a second time, and spread over six short sessions on two-and-a-half days, this was never going to be a Synod that set the world on fire. But it was a patient and meticulous working-through of essential business and receiving of reports.

Every vote was swiftly conducted by a simple majority, although the Bishop of Cashel, Ferns & Ossory, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows, who presided over the passage of five Bills, confessed: “I wish I could say Ayes to the Right and Noes to the left: I do miss the joyful shouting that makes it fun.”

The first Bill was designed to reduce membership of the Synod in two phases, from its current 624 members to 597 in the triennium 2024-26, and then to 534 in 2027-32. The present figure is largely unchanged since the Synod was established in 1870, when it was based on one clerical member for every ten priests, and two lay members for every clerical member. There was one modification in 1969, when two dioceses merged.

The change will mean that representation will be based on the numbers of cures in a diocese, but with an allowance for additional places to be awarded on a sliding scale of one to 12, with one additional place given to the numerically strongest diocese in terms of cures, and 12 to the numerically smallest diocese. Neither Province should have two-thirds or more of total representation, and representation will be reviewed every three triennia.

Proposing the Bill, Ken Gibson (Connor) asked for recognition that previous diocesan mergers had, “through no fault of their own”, left certain dioceses with over-representation. He spoke of the importance of ensuring “that the voice of the marginalised, the weak, the remote, the minority, and so on can be heard at General Synod. If Synod were based solely on numbers, the voice of the rural or, indeed, the inner-city church could be permanently under-represented and never heard.

“We must have a General Synod that is of a size that is manageable, encourages participation, but is not so small as to mitigate against regular turnover of members.” A model based solely on the number of cures was proposed in 2018, and was rejected, because it was deemed unfair to marginal voices (News, 18 May 2018). There were few detractors in the unexpectedly short debate that followed: the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, had expected it to be a longer affair, and had moved it to a bigger time slot than scheduled.

Jocelyn Sanders (Killaloe) feared for the future of the Church of Ireland if the Bill was passed. He urged reducing numbers by a simple proportional reduction in diocesan membership, and, perceiving “a sharp divide of churchmanship” between the more Evangelical Northern and the more liberal Southern Provinces, feared that the Bill would “encourage those seeking to impose their party doctrine on the whole Church”.

This was firmly rebutted by the Dean of Cork, the Very Revd Nigel Dunne, who found Mr Sanders’s language and generalisation “most unhelpful”. Churchmanship was not as clear-cut as that: “There is a huge range here in this diocese, but we do it as a unit, and respect each other for it,” he said. Discussion had been intense, open and honest, well balanced, and fair to the two dioceses about to amalgamate: Tuam, Killala & Achonry, and Limerick & Killaloe.

Patricia Barker (Dublin) commended the thinking behind the proposal as sound, but thought it under-ambitious. Representation was still large: she recommended double-cutting. Canon Patrick Comerford (Limerick & Killaloe) described it as “a good Bill, but not the best”, one that threatened “turning us into a congregationalist rather than an episcopal Church. Limerick will lose in the long run, but at the moment, it’s the best we can get.”

The Synod voted in favour of the Bill by 289- 7. Bishop Burrows recalled first discussion of this in 1998, and described the Synod’s acceptance as “the final consensual result of improvements and journeying together”. The Bishop of Cork, Dr Paul Cotton, saw the endorsement of the Bill as a sign of encouragement that “things can change in the Church of Ireland. Change may be slow, but it does happen. It’s good. It’s progress.”

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